Grand Cru Bordeaux 2014: A Splendid Restaurant Year

I went to this year’s tasting of the Union of Grand Cru Bordeaux in the slightly surreal surroundings of Miami. Outside people were playing in the pool; inside we were tasting the first showing in the States of the 2014 vintage. Ten or twenty years ago, if I had said this was a restaurant year, it would have been taken as meaning that the wines were relatively light and enjoyable to drink in the mid term without having the potential to age longer term. That is a reasonable description of Bordeaux in 2014 except for a big difference: most of the wines are virtually ready to drink now because of the refinement of the tannins; in the past they would still have needed several years to come around.

Few of the 2014 vintage need more than another year or so, and even for those it’s more a matter of preference than a necessity. Because the wines do not have punishing levels of extract, and the wines are more restrained than usual, this is a great year for seeing the differences between appellations. Typicities are especially clear on the Left Bank, although the restrained style of the vintage makes the Right Bank seem less rich and powerful than usual.

This is not a great year for whites, although there is more variety in the character of Pessac-Léognan than usual, from Domaine de Chevalier’s usual crystalline precision, to Smith Haut Lafite’s crisp Sauvignon edge to a rich palate, and Pape Clément’s exotic opulence. Most others show a tendency to display Sauvignon Blanc’s herbaceous side, sometimes with an exotic overlay.

The relatively light character of the vintage shows through in Pessac-Léognan, where the wines tend to elegant black fruits rather than power. They are well balanced for current drinking; some give the impression that it may be important to enjoy before dilution begins to set in. The extremes of precision versus breadth show as usual in Domaine de Chevalier (one of the few that really does need some time) and Pape Clément (less international than usual). Haut Bailly is definitely top flight Left Bank, but seems more Médocian this year. It’s a relatively crisp vintage in the Graves, some might even say tending towards mineral. I think Malartic-Lagravière have upped their game in recent years, and the 2014 is a very good representation of the vintage in Pessac: sweet ripe black fruits show a smooth palate with refined tannins in the background, and just a faint hint of herbal impressions.

The characteristic velvety core with a sense of lightness of being that marks the Margaux appellation is evident in this vintage. The difference from the more direct structure of St. Julien is clear. Marquis de Terme, Kirwan and Prieuré-Lichine show the velvet, Durfort Vivens and Rauzan-Ségla capture the elegance of Margaux, and Lascombes seems less international than usual. With light, refined tannins, most are almost ready to drink now, will be fully ready in a couple of years, and should improve over a few years. Margaux is more homogeneous than usual in this vintage.

St. Julien shows its usual elegant structure. As so often for me, Léoville Barton is the benchmark of the appellation: elegant palate, refined structure, complexity underneath. Langoa Barton is not so complex; Léoville Poyferré shows signs of its more international style in a faintly chocolaty finish to a smooth palate, as does Lagrange. Chateau Gloria is ironically the quintessence of a grand cru with a very fine sense of structure, while St. Pierre is less subtle and more forceful. Gruaud Larose has that typically tight impression of youth; Beychevelle as always is dryly elegant. Most need another couple of years and should be good for more or less a decade.

Moving from St. Julien to Pauillac, there’s an immediate sense of smooth black fruits, an overlay that is quite velvety and rich. Chateau d’Armailhac is the quintessence of Pauillac this year, with that characteristic plushness of the appellation. As always, Grand Puy Lacoste shows the refined side of Pauillac, with the vintage expressing itself by a slightly overt touch of structure at the end. Lynch Bages is a bit on the tight side, but the structure is just protected by the fruits and should support longevity.

St. Estèphe is always hard to judge at the UGCB because so few chateaux are represented, but my general impression is that the typical hardness of the appellation shows rather obviously on the palate. Yet the approachability of Ormes de Pez is a vivid demonstration of the change in style of Bordeaux over the past twenty years.

Listrac-Moulis and the Haut Médoc generally make a more traditional impression than the great communes, perhaps showing more resemblance to the Cru Bourgeois than to the grand crus. Sometimes the bare bones of the structure shows past the fruits. Showing the lightness of the year, Chasse-Spleen is quite classic, Cantemerle flirts with traditional herbaceousness, La Lagune is a bit fuller than its neighbors in Margaux, and La Tour Carnet shows the 2014 version of the international style.

The one word that describes this vintage in St. Emilion is unusual in the context of the appellation: restrained. The wines show their usual flavor spectrum, but are toned down from their customary exuberance. Canon and Canon la Gaffelière show great purity of fruits, Beauséjour Bécot is a marker for the appellation in this vintage, Clos Fourtet and La Gaffelière are attractive but without a great deal of complexity.

Pomerol also merits an unusual description: elegant. Most wines display their usual flavor spectrum, without enough stuffing for longevity, but with the restrained nature of the vintage letting purity of fruits show through. Perhaps the succulence of Beauregard is the most Pomerol-ish, Bon Pasteur is the most elegant, and Clinet, La Pointe, and La Cabanne really represent the character of Pomerol in this vintage with a balance between softness and freshness.

This is not a great vintage for Sauternes. Even so, “I’ve stopped spitting,” announced my companion, the Anima Figure, when we reached Sauternes. The wines are sweet and citric, a little honeyed and piquant, but mostly without the intensity of botrytis. Chateau de Fargues stood out for me for its higher level of botrytis and classic balance.

While this is a lesser vintage, there are some lovely wines, with the style representing a move back to classicism in its freshness, yet staying in the modern idiom by its approachability. There is much less difference in approachability than usual between the Left and Right Banks: St Emilion and Pomerol are absolutely ready, and the Left Bank is virtually ready. If nothing stood out as superlative, none failed to represent their appellation. They will give a taste of the authentic Bordeaux for the next few years.

Cru Bourgeois in 2014: Fresh and Lively

A presentation of twenty Cru Bourgeois châteaux in New York gave a view of the 2014 vintage that will be an interesting contrast with the forthcoming tasting of the UGCB (grand crus).

Perhaps I was biased by the first few wines I tasted, but the first single word that came to mind to describe the vintage was “acidity.” This is perhaps a bit unfair, but continuing on it certainly seemed that fresh and lively would be a reasonable description. These wines are a far cry from the exuberant style to which the grand crus have been moving.

The wines are mostly well balanced in the traditional style of Bordeaux, which is to say showing fresh fruits with a lively palate. Traditional may be a bit misleading if you think back to when Bordeaux was bitter when young, as one impressive quality is that virtually all are ready to drink now. Tannins are light and never obtrusive, there isn’t an overt sense of structure, but there’s enough to stop the wines from becoming simple fruits. None will be especially long lived, but most should last well for six to eight years. What does this suggest about the vintage? More classic than modern would be fair comment.

These are definitely food wines. I suspect they wouldn’t show so well at a tasting with wines in a more “international” idiom, because you have to look for flavor variety rather than having it thrust at you, but the restrained quality puts them into a class where they should offer a refreshing counterpoise to a meal.

Alcohol is a surprise: it is not noticeable on any of the wines. Given the impression they offer of traditional Bordeaux, you would expect the level to be around 12.5%, but in fact it is usually 13.5%. It’s the first time I’ve been able to accept that 13.5 is the new 12.5 as the alcohol is not accompanied by an impression that dry extract had to be increased to balance it. I don’t know whether the alcohol is all natural or there has been some chaptalization.

These wines are good value, mostly around the $25 mark, and an interesting contrast with, say, New World Cabernet at that price level, where the wines usually seem to me to be trying too hard to imitate more expensive varietal wines. Here the pattern is more bimodal: I see the Cru Bourgeois as striking a different balance, and having a different objective, rather than running as a continuum into the grand crus.

Three wines that particularly stood out for me were Château Labardi (Haut Médoc), for its delicacy and silkiness, Château Peyrabon (Haut Médoc) for a smooth, spicy balance, and Château Rollan de By (Médoc) for its full, generous black fruit impression.

An Exercise in Bottle Variation in Less Than Twenty Years

An evening of 1998 Pomerol was as much a demonstration in the difficulty of judging wines at this age due to individual variation as an opportunity to get a bead on this unusual vintage, where the right bank performed well but the left bank was miserable.sunset24

Sunset over Pomerol. The church at the center of the village is on the right

We started with La Conseillante. The first bottle was corked, okay that’s an occupational hazard. The second bottle was slightly corked. Bad luck. The third bottle was brilliant, typical La Conseillante, giving that impression of iron in the soil you get from the edge of Pomerol, fully on form from what has always been one of my favorite chateaux.

A bottle of L’Eglise Clinet was rather restrained for Pomerol, with a fresh sense of acidity to the palate, almost at the edge of piquancy. But then a second bottle showed clear, pure fruits with more spice, and a greater sense of Cabernet Franc, perhaps more in line with expectations from St. Emilion, but very fine. Presumably the second represents the real l’Eglise Clinet, but without any obvious flaw in the first bottle, it would have been easy to dismiss the chateau.

Clinet showed as softer than Eglise Clinet, more Merlot-ish but again quite restrained. Fresh, pure, good structure but not obtrusive. Ah, but a second bottle showed greater fruit purity, more sense of spice, gorgeous. I would not buy Clinet based on the first bottle, but I would definitely buy it based on the second.

No problems with Trotanoy: spicy, full, pure, very refined impressions of Merlot. Then Vieux Chateau Certan, which some people described as sexy, and which for me seemed more typical Pomerol, which is perhaps why Trotanoy, with more restraint, was my favorite.

Then back to bottle problems. The first bottle of Le Gay was quite undeveloped, somewhere between rich and structured, with good acidity, but no very distinct character. This is just not a very good wine, said my neighbor. Then a second bottle showed greater fruit and precision, with distinctly more purity.

So out of six wines, only two were unequivocally in peak condition. (And, of course, it might be that because they were so good we did not ask to try another bottle, but there could have been less successful bottles at other tables.) In the four cases where the first bottle presented a problem, only the La Conseillante was obviously corked. If a second bottle had not been available, it would have been easy to put all the other cases down to poor winemaking. This is a real killer for the chateaux.

There was no question of provenance here, each wine had been bought as a lot in good conditions, usually en primeur, and stored properly. So what can it be but the corks? This is woefully unacceptable. If an appliance, say a refrigerator, performed with such variability, its manufacturer would go out of business.

I’ve never really liked the idea of screwcaps for red wines destined for aging, because I worry about problems of reduction, but when I’ve had the opportunity to compare the same wines bottled under cork and screwcap (specifically in New Zealand and Australia, where the wines were about ten years old), the screwcap wine was always fresher and younger. Whether it would ultimately age in the same way as a wine under cork is the big question in my mind. I think it is time for the chateaux in Bordeaux to do some experiments and find out.

A Day at Three Mythic Wineries in Montalcino

“This destination is not on the digital map,” my GPS announced, when I entered the coordinates for Cerbaiona, but we knew the destination was in sight when we saw the huge crane looming over the construction. The buildings are in full flight of reconstruction with a two year project to renovate and extend the cellars, improve the vineyards, and plant a new vineyard. Cerbaiona is one of the mythic producers of Brunello, created when Diego Molinari left Alitalia in 1977, and instead of flying planes, began making wine.

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The crane showed me where to find Cerbaiona

 Winemaking might more accurately have been called idiosyncratic rather than traditional, with vinification in cement tanks with fiber glass lining, and aging in very old botti. But the wines won worldwide acclaim.

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The house at Cerbaiona is being restored

Cerbaiona was a manor house, and the east-facing vineyards just below the house are adjacent to the La Cerbaiola estate. Cerbaiona was purchased in 2015 by a group of investors led by Matthew Fioretti, a Californian who spent some of his education in Italy, and started in wine by importing Italian wines into the United States. Now he is living at Cerbaiona and managing the massive reconstruction. “I thought we could do it one step at time, but I realized we would have to do everything at once,” Matthew explains. Just below the house a 1 ha olive grove has been replanted with vines, and an additional vineyard may be added at slightly higher elevation (the estate is at 450 m).

“The Molinaris were the ultimate garagistes, making some wine in the basement,” is how Matthew describes the previous situation. Working around the construction, the current vintage is being made in new equipment, with wood fermenters and new botti. So there may be a bit more wood showing for the next year or so. Tastings of the Rosso and Brunello presently maturing in botti show the characteristic combination of density with elegance. Will there be any permanent change in style? “Well, it’s the vineyards that count,” Matthew says, but there will be better handling of the fruit, so look for increased purity in the wine.

The adjacent vineyard is La Cerbaiola—Diego Molinari used to say that Cerbaione and Cerbaiola were part of the same estate a century ago—but to visit you don’t go to the winery, but to the cellars in Montalcino. The tiny scale of production at La Cerbaiola is indicated by its aging cellar, underneath the family house in Piazza Cavour in the town of Montalcino: it has 6 botti of 20 hl. That’s the total production for one of the mythic producers of Montalcino.

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The unassuming entrance hides the cellar of one of Montalcino’s top producers

The property at La Cerbaiola, three vineyards totalling 4 ha in a 20 ha estate, has been in the Salvioni family for three generations, but winemaking is relatively recent. “Our story started in 1985 when my father decided to make wine, says Alessia Salvioni.   Guilio Salvioni’s first vintage in 1985 was an immediate success: the traditional approach, using indigenous yeast, botti (albeit of medium size), and lack of filtration, marked the wines firmly in the artisanal camp.

The entire vineyard is declared for Brunello, but some is declassified to Rosso when the crop is unusually large or there is a poor vintage. There are certainly ups and downs in production. In 2012 there were 12,000 bottles of Brunello, in 2013 there were only four botti (about 10,000 bottles), in 2014 the entire crop was declassified to Rosso, and in 2015 there will probably be 15,000 bottles, all Brunello. The wines have that combination of full flavor and density, yet elegant expression, that marks the vineyards of Cerbaiola and Cerbaiona.

And then for something completely different, I went to Valdicava, in the northeast of the appellation. Well, not completely different: a sense of Déja Vu all over again, as we had to go a long way round to the back entrance, because the front was blocked by massive reconstruction works. Driving through the extensive estate on the way to the winery, we passed the Madonna del Piano, a small building that used to be a church, and which is just above the famous 8 ha vineyard of its name.

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Madonna del Piano overlooks the famous vineyard

The work is to build a new winery, a stable for the racing horses (another interest), and a tasting room. The present winery is small facility, packed with equipment and botti. One of the older established producers in Montalcino, Valdicava was turned into something of a cult wine after Vincenzo Abbruzzese took over in 1987. The estate was founded by his grandfather, Bramante Abbruzzese, in 1953. Valdicava was a founding member of the Consorzio, and has been bottling wine under the Valdicava label since 1977 (previously they carried a generic description from the Consorzio with the winery’s name).

The vineyards occupy only a small part of the 135 ha estate, which extends into the famous Montosoli hill, where the most powerful wines of Montalcino are produced. Valdicava produces three wines: Rosso (from the youngest vines), Brunello, and the single vineyard Madonna del Piano Riserva, produced only in the best vintages in small amounts (around 800 cases). Wines are aged only in botti, which are natural wood with no toast. Botti are replaced after fifteen years, and Vincenzo buys the wood and stores it in advance.

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The gracious back of Valdicava’s winery hides all the work at the front

The style is forceful, and at all levels the wines give an impression of the density that comes from low yields (in fact some of the lowest in the region), and the wines correspondingly need time to come around. Although forceful, Valdicava does not lose elegance and purity of fruits. Madonna is not so much more intense than Valdicava as different in its profile, with an intriguing blend of minerality on the bouquet and chocolate on the finish. “It’s different but it’s just between the other vineyards, there must be something in the soil.” Its character comes right through vintage variation, but it needs a long time to come around, perhaps twenty years. How long will these wines age? Vincenzo has been quoted as saying, “I guarantee the Riserva for the lifetime of the buyer.”

Will Gran Selezione Pull Chianti Classico Out of the Doldrums?

On my research visit to Tuscany last month for the Guide to Wines of Tuscany, I spent a morning at Rocca Delle Macìe, where I had a long conversation with Sergio Zingarelli, presently the chairman of the Consorzio of Chianti Classico. Founded by Sergio’s father in 1973 as a small winery, Rocca Delle Macìe has grown to include four estates in Chianti Classico and two in Maremma, and its total annual production is numbered in millions of bottles. The original winery is a tiny building now used to store botti, and around it is a gracious courtyard with family buildings and a tasting room; just below is the large, modern winery. I’m going to report the conversation verbatim without much commentary, as it casts an interesting light on the great progress being made in Chianti.

roccamacie1The black rooster in the courtyard at Rocca Delle Macìe

“The quality of Chianti Classico had increased a lot, due to changes in the cellar and the work on the Sangiovese grapes,” Sergio started, “but the image was not up to the level of the wines and the wineries. There are two big problems. One is the confusion between Chianti and Chianti Classico. We’ve given the black rooster more visibility, and we hope everyone will put Gallo Nero on the neck in the future.” This refers to the emblem of Chianti Classico—which is prominent as a large metal sculpture in the courtyard at Rocca Delle Macìe. [Chianti tout court refers to the huge area around Chianti Classico which also produces wines based on Sangiovese, but it is a completely separate DOCG with different regulations.]

“The second problem is that the best wines from the best wineries were not Chianti but IGT [the so-called super-Tuscans]. People would ask why the top wines were not Chianti Classico if they come from the Chianti Classico area and fit within the rules for the Chianti Classico blend.” The answer to this has been to introduce a new category, Gran Selezione, starting with the 2011 vintage. “It took two years to decide the name of the new category. The idea is that it has to represent the very best. In 2014 the first presentation was by 24 wineries with Gran Selezione; now there are over 100 wineries. Even some of the wineries that voted against have started the production of Gran Selezione. It’s important that the commission tastes the wine.” A big difference from Riserva (which still exists) is that wines must be approved: when I asked how often a wine is rejected, Sergio would not be drawn into details, but said that it’s certainly not a pro forma procedure.

I asked about the controversial decision that Gran Selezione is restricted to a producer’s own grapes, but not to an individual vineyard. Sergio gave a big sigh—obviously this had been a hard fought point. “No, it’s not required—but most of them do, 80 or 90%.” An informant in the Consorzio explained that there are some important top Chianti Classicos that don’t come from single vineyards, a prominent example being Ruffino’s Ducale Oro (which actually comes from two estates in the same commune). Ruffino wanted this to be Gran Selezione. “It was difficult to say no to Ruffino…”

Will IGTs be relabeled as Gran Selezione, I asked? “This is our goal. We are waiting.” In the meantime, some new top cuvées have become Gran Selezione, including Rocca Delle Macìe’s wine named for its owner. “The Sergio Zingarelli cuvée would have been an IGT if the Gran Selezione category had not been created,” Sergio says. I have come across a couple of former super-Tuscans that are now labeled as Gran Selezione, but most producers tell me they do not plan to change the label.

Chianti is a large area, covering seven or so communes, with different soil types, and climatic variation from north to south and from low to high elevations, so I asked whether producers will be allowed to indicate zones on labels. Wouldn’t this be a useful movement towards distinguishing character? “We are working to see what geographical information could be included. If we divided by soils and geography we would have to have 100 different classifications. We have to work by steps. Now we are working to have more information on the label where a wine comes from; if this happens it will probably be for Gran Selezione and Riserva.”

The rules for Chianti Classico have undergone continual evolution from the old regulations requiring white grapes to be included and limiting the proportion of Sangiovese (both factors that drove many top wines into the super-Tuscan category). Today Sangiovese has to be at least 80%, white grapes are forbidden, and international varieties can be included, but there’s something of a move back to indigenous varieties. “In the eighties when we understood we had to improve the quality, a lot of wineries felt they had to use international varieties because it was difficult to reliably produce high quality with Sangiovese. But with Chianti Classico 2000 [a research project to develop better grape varieties], we found several clones of Sangiovese and one each of Colorino and Canaiolo that are high quality for Chianti. For example, in a vineyard my father planted with 3,000 plants/ha, we could have two weeks difference in ripening between adjacent plants. We’ve analyzed the soil and replanted at more or less double density, and we don’t have the same problems with ripening. With these changes probably the international grapes will begin to decrease. Twenty years ago some people wanted to increase the international proportion allowed, but now this is anachronistic; people are increasing Sangiovese and indigenous grapes. I think in the natural way Sangiovese will increase—but I think Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are important grapes in the area.”

I admit I was sceptical when I first encountered Gran Selezione. However, whereas at the first showing, most Gran Seleziones were the same cuvées that had previously been labeled as Riservas, in Tuscany last month I found many new cuvées, often representing single vineyards or specific terroirs, and the quality was a definite step up from where Riservas used to be. Is Chianti Classico closing in on Brunello di Montalcino (where the wines have to be 100% Sangiovese) in terms of quality?

I Form a New View of Champagne at the Fête de Champagne: Savory not Sweet

Tasting through the wines of thirty producers at the Fête de Champagne in New York, my notes often read “savory” or even “umami,” sometimes “austere” or “mineral,” but rarely mentioned sweetness or sugar. Of course, this could be because I focused on small grower-producers rather than large houses, because producers chose to bring a particular selection of Champagnes biased away from the more traditional style, or because the organizers took a specific view of what cuvées would be suitable to present in New York.

Several producers showed only Extra Brut or Zero Dosage (Brut Nature), where the trend was clearest.  It’s certainly true that dosage has been decreasing in Champagne over the past decade, although this is more to maintain continuity of style in the face of riper grapes resulting from global warming than to change the style, and there is also something of a trend to introduce zero dosage cuvées, but almost a quarter of the cuvées at the Fête de Champagne were Extra Brut, and as many again were Zero Dosage, which seems quite extreme against the general statistical trend. (Actually the classification as stated on the label probably underestimates the trend to Extra Brut, because many cuvées where dosage has been reduced below 4 g/l continue to be labeled as Brut although they could be Extra Brut.)

Although acidity has been decreasing with the warmer vintages, there was no shortage of it at the tasting (even though most producers are performing malolactic fermentation). Subjectively it does not seem that the crispness of Champagne is at all threatened at present, in fact producers have scope to display acidity by moving to Extra Brut or Zero Dosage, or to suppress it by moving into the realm of Brut with higher dosage. Objectively, it’s probably the fact that acidity is lower than it used to be that allows the Extra Brut and Zero Dosage styles to be produced; indeed, some producers use only their ripest grapes for Zero Dosage as otherwise the wines really can be too austere. I would say that in almost half of the Zero Dosage I tasted at the Fête, acidity was higher than I was really comfortable with on the palate, and some of the Extra Brut cuvées were a bit too austere for my palate, showing a touch too much bitterness on the finish: in these classes, there is no escaping from the need for absolutely top quality grapes.

But aside from the whole question of the acid to sweetness balance, savory impressions in Champagne are something relatively new to me (talking here about newly released Champagnes rather than the tertiary qualities that develop much later). The trend to Extra Brut and Zero Dosage is no doubt a prerequisite, since at Brut levels of dosage, any savory notes are likely to be hidden by the sweetness from the residual sugar. One of the most overtly savory Champagnes I have had was De Sousa’s Umami, so named because Erik de Sousa wanted to capture impressions of umami in a wine after he returned from a visit to Japan, but conditions have been right to produce this cuvée only once, he says (in 2009).

Jacquesson’s numbered releases (each representing a base year augmented by small amounts of other recent vintages) have low dosage to bring out the savory side, and it was fascinating to see that a late disgorgement of #735 (base year 2007) really enhanced the savory style. Perhaps the most savory Champagne of the day was Jacquesson’s vintage 2007 from Dizy.

Benoit Tarlant is one of my favorite small growers for his focus on Zero Dosage, and this time I found that his rosé took the edge of the austerity of the style to give a flavorful balance. And there on the Cuvée Louis 2000 Brut Nature is a lovely savory tang at the end: who says that Brut Nature can’t age (some critics argue that it can’t, because sugar is needed for the Maillard reaction with nitrogenous compounds that is the basis for the development of toast and brioche).

I was impressed with the wines of Chartogne-Taillet for their fresh precision and savory aftertaste. Maison Bérêche’s cuvées seemed a little on the acid side, more herbal than savory, but a million miles from that sensation of saccharine on the over dosed Champagnes of the past. Villmart’s cuvées seem to be moving in a savory direction as they age.

I draw a distinction between savory and minerality (even allowing for the fact that minerality means all things to all people, as I discussed in the previous blog: There Is No Such Thing as Minerality). For me, minerality is stony, smoky, flinty, the quintessential marker would be gunflint; whereas for savory, I’m looking for an impression of umami, maybe a touch of fenugrek (Scarborough Fair Wines in the Jura). I got impressions of minerality in the tight, precise style of Larmandier-Bernier and René Geoffroy, with more savory impressions in the wines of Pascal Doquet and Michel Gonet, as well as those already mentioned. What I like about this is the feeling that Champagne is no longer a wine sweetened to hide the problems of ripening grapes in a marginal climate, but is now offering interesting representations of terroir (and sometimes cépage)

The Ultimate Artisan: A Visit to Champagne Agrapart

We arrived at Agrapart to find that Pascal wasn’t quite ready for us: he was in the middle of disgorgement. But this was not the usual machine with its wonderful automated array of equipment for dipping inverted bottles in ice, turning back up, removing crown caps, and inserting dosage before corking: this was Pascal. His son was dipping the inverted bottles into the freezing mixture and quickly turning them back up, Pascal snipped the cork off with a pair of pliers, stuck the end of the pliers into the neck to release the foam, then sniffed to check all was well, before the bottle was passed on for dosage and bottling.

agrapart4Pascal engaged in disgorgement

Agrapart is on the Avenue Jean Jaurès, which is Avize’s equivalent of Avenue de Champagne in Epernay–a long line of Champagne houses one after the other. It was founded by Pascal Agrapart’s grandfather and is still a family domain. Pascal’s father started to commercialize the Champagne in the sixties and seventies. Pascal built the domain up from 3 ha to 12 ha. “We wouldn’t grow beyond, say, 15 ha and be able to continue as we like to consider ourselves true artisans,” says Nathalie Agrapart. Vineyards include more than 70 individual parcels, mostly Grand Cru with some Premier Cru on the Côte de Blancs, and a little Pinot Noir on the Montagne de Reims. “We are specialists in Chardonnay, we just have some small plots with Pinot Noir,” says Nathalie.

agrapart5The courtyard at Agrapart

The artisan nature of the operation becomes clear going around the cellars, set around a charming courtyard off the street, and somewhat larger than they appear, as they go down for three levels. The top level is for vinification, the second level is full of pupîtres, and the third is for stockage. There are two old presses, where the juice runs out directly into an underground vat. (Not in use at the moment, the presses have bicycles stored in them.) Riddling is all manual, but “the problem with the pupîtres is that we don’t have enough space, it would easier with gyropalettes.” There’s no transvasage, remuage is done manually up to jeroboams.

There are 7 cuvées. Only two are based on assemblage from different parcels; the majority are single vineyard wines or represent specific terroirs. Only one is Brut, the rest are Extra Brut or Brut Nature. Pascal thinks a lot about his cuvées. “The idea in my head was…” he tends to explain with a gesture, as he introduces each cuvée. The range gives a terrific expression of different terroirs through the prism of Chardonnay. An extremely fine sense of texture runs through all cuvées. Flavors in the citrus spectrum are subtle, and deepen going from the vins d’assemblage to the single vineyard wines, but all cuvées have that impression of refinement and delicacy, giving a sense that a fine coiled spring is waiting to develop. The Extra Brut style allows purity of fruits to shine through.

There are four Blanc de Blancs representing specific terroirs. “We have vineyards very close to the Maison and make three completely different wines.” Mineral comes from very calcareous plots in Avize and Cramant. “In the same village you can find different terroirs, clay or calcareous, different depths of soil. My idea is to reflect those differences by selecting vineyards that show the mineral side.” Avizoise is a vintage that comes from the oldest vines (60 years) from soils with more clay in Avize. “Mineral has the verticality, Avizoise has more volume and breadth.” Exp. 12 is a Brut Nature from Avize. “This is nothing but Champagne. No dosage, no sugar at all. The liqueur comes from another vintage. So it’s all Champagne.”

Complantee is an unusual blend that in addition to the usual three varieties has Pinot Blanc, Arbane, and Petit Meslier. The name reflects the fact that the varieties are all intermingled in the vineyard. It comes from a tiny plot (less than a third of a hectare) which Pascal planted in 2003 because he thinks terroir is more important than cépage. For me, cépage does come through, however, because I get that faintly herbal, faintly spicy impression that comes from the old varieties.

It’s an experience to taste through the range at Agrapart as each cuvée has something different to say.

 

Artisan Champagne, Biodynamics, and Music at Éric Rodez

Arriving for a visit with Éric Rodez at what looks like a residence in a quiet back street of Ambonnay, there’s a crane hovering over the building, with everything under construction. Éric Rodez is constructing a new winery at the family house. He has separate cellars close by in the town, but they have run out of space.

The Rodez family has been making wine in Ambonnay since 1757, and after a stint in Burgundy followed by experience as an oenologist at a large Champagne house, Éric came back to run the family domain. “My first vintage was an exceptionally bad year, 1984, and this created a tsunami in me. I felt no emotion in my new wine,” he recollects. Éric bubbles over with comparisons between wine and music, all the while drawing parallels between the emotions they create. “When you go to a concert, every concert is a new emotion, it’s not just a repeat. For me this is the logic for terroir wine. Every year I am writing a melody with a new interpretation.”

Éric is committed to biodynamic viticulture, but that is not enough. “Now I am using aromatherapy. Organic viticulture uses copper for mildew and sulfur for oïdium, but copper is toxic for the soil and sulfur is toxic for the wine. Using oils reduces the need for copper.” Out in the vineyards, he explains the morcelated character of his holdings, which consist of 35 separate parcels. “These 13 rows of Pinot Noir come from my father, these 39 rows of Chardonnay come from my mother.” He points to his vines where the berries are small and the bunches are small, then we cross the street to a neighbor’s vines, conventionally farmed, and Eric points to the difference: the berries and bunches are much larger. “It’s not bad,” he says, “but it’s nice industrial champagne, it dilutes the terroir.” He’s fervent about the advantages of biodynamics.

ericrodezgrapestwo

Eric Rodez’s biodynamic grapes (left) are much smaller than those of neighboring plots (right).

Winemaking is traditional in some respects and unconventional or modern in others. “Traditionally Champagne is 80% the new year and 20% reserves, but I use 70% reserve wines and only 30% of current vintage.” Pressing uses old manual presses constructed in 1936. “I don’t want to use a modern press. It’s very important to press slowly.” But there are a couple of gyropalettes, so Eric is not stuck thoughtlessly in tradition. The cellar contains stainless steel vats and barriques; 20% of the wine is fermented in old oak, and most élevage is in oak.

ericrodez1Behind the house, a new winery is being constructed.

Dosage is always low here. “All my wines are Extra Brut, but I put Brut on the label because I never know for the next vintage.” The style really showcases cépage, and you see the differences between the character of each cépage in a way that is unusually clear for Champagne. The Blanc de Blancs says, “I am Chardonnay,” and the Blanc de Noirs says, “I am Pinot Noir.” Coming from the Ambonnay grand cru, the blends have only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “I’m not interested in Pinot Meunier because it doesn’t age well,” Éric explains. All the wines have a great sense of balance and integration between density and vivacity.

“Cuvée des Crayères blends the structure of Pinot Noir with the sensuality of Chardonnay,” says Éric, and it shows that characteristic balance of the house. The Blanc de Blancs comes from Ambonnay and has a typically elegant uplift. The Blanc de Noirs has that characteristic sense of Pinot Noir’s density. “For the Blanc de Noirs I did not do MLF in order to have more sensuality.” The Zero Dosage is perfectly balanced, with no sense of anything missing, as sometimes happens in the category. It comes from a plot in the middle of the slope which gives good ripeness. The Cuvée des Grands Vintages is “a blend of the best vintages, it is very complex. “Les Beurys is “one plot, one vintage, one cépage,” from a plot of Pinot Noir with east exposure and 35 cms of soil. “It’s almost an anti-Champagne because there’s no assemblage.” The vintage Blanc de Blancs, Empreinte De Terroir Chardonnay, “is my view of the terroir of Ambonnay.” Long and deep, unmistakably Chardonnay, this says it all.

Flavorful would be a good one word summary of the style. You can only get a result like this if you hold back on the sulfur, says my companion, the Anima Figure, and indeed it’s very low. These are very distinctive wines, with everything focused on bringing out terroir and cépage.

 

 

 

Does Terroir Survive Distillation?

“I really believe terroir survives distillation, but you have to work for it,” says Guillaume Drouin, at Calvados producer Christian Drouin. Guillaume’s grandfather made Calvados as a hobby, his father started producing commercially—“his intention was to make the best Calvados he could”—and Guillaume has taken the company further into artisanal production, concentrating on vintage Calvados as well as a range of blends with differing ages. Drouin was the perfect producer to visit to investigate the effects of terroir on spirits.

I have always been sceptical about the role of terroir on Cognac. The official definition of an appellation hierarchy decreasing in concentric circle around the town of Cognac is, of course, a geological nonsense, and I’ve always been puzzled how terroir can exert an effect when the starting point for production is to make a wine that is as neutral as possible. I thought Calvados might be different, as coming from apples, via an intermediate stage of cider, it offers more opportunity to show differences  that might survive or even be magnified during distillation. And Pays d’Auge comes only from apples, whereas Calvados AOP and Domfront, another appellation, farther west) can include pears as well.

Drouin is located at the northern edge of the Pays d’Auge, the best appellation within Calvados (AOP Calvados can come from a wine range of areas with outcrops as far as Cherbourg and Neufchatel). In fact, you might regard Drouin as a cool climate Calvados, as the 30 ha of orchards are near Honfleur. Two parallels with vines are the location and ages of the trees. Some orchards are 10 km farther south and harvest is later there. And they get better as they age,  “Apple trees last up to 60 years, and flavors get deeper in old trees,” says Guillaume, although it seems that the effects are not so pronounced as with Vieilles Vignes.

Drouin1Drouin’s winery is typically Normand.

 

There are probably a couple of hundred varieties of apples in the region. “Every producer will tell you he has more than 20 varieties,” says Guillaume, “we work with 30. It’s important in our style. We categorize the types of apples as sweet, bitter sweet, bitter, and acid.” Because there are so many varieties, picking lasts from the end of September to early December. Apple trees function on a two year cycle, so if a variety gives high yields one year, it compensates with low yields the next year. Blending is the crucial tool for ironing out these differences from year to year. “Every time I have tried to make single variety cider or Calvados, I was very disappointed,” Guillaume says.

The blending process has many parallels with aged tawny Port. A blended Calvados has an average age, rather than an exact age. At Drouin, VSOP is 6-8 years, XO is 10-12 years, and Hors d’Age is 15 years (the legal minimum average for Hors d’Age is 6 years). Some producers make a range comparable to the ages of tawny ports—at Domaine Dupont, I tasted 20-year and 30-year Calvados, and the increase in refinement going from the younger to the older was very similar to my experience with tawny Ports. In the same way, blending may involve many lots, including very small amounts of very old spirits as well as larger amounts of younger ones. “Up to 40 lots might be blended, but the exact number is a secret,” I was told when I asked for details.

As the objective of blending is to maintain consistency of style, this does not seem fruitful grounds for investigating terroir, but Drouin also makes vintage Calvados. Most producers make vintage Calvados occasionally—when the year is good and when market demand supports it—but Drouin is really committed. “We are a specialist in vintage and make one every year,” Guillaume explains. “We bottle it after 30 years aging. Probably 70% of character is due to the aging, and 30% is the quality of the vintage. We find differences from one vintage to the next, but not as much as you would find in a wine region.”

Issues of balancing acidity and tannins are similar to wine. Lots that are unusually well balanced are not blended but are kept aside to become vintage Calvados. While blended Calvados is aged in French oak, for the vintage other sources may be used, depending on the year. “Calvados is traditionally blended, it’s the way to get balance. With vintage we change the source of the casks each year to get balance. The blend is made by the same production method each year, it has to have the same style, but for the vintage every year is aged in a different way.” So the 1993 shows a light, delicate style—it was my favorite in a vertical tasting—and it was aged in casks from Sauternes. The 1995 is much denser and was aged in old Port casks. When I commented that it seemed more classic, I was given the 1973—“this is really classic”—which was aged in Calvados casks.

So this makes it a little difficult to assess the effect of vintage. The differences are sufficiently striking, however, that it seems fair to conclude that, much like wine, they reflect what happened to the various cultivars in the specific conditions of that year, perhaps even amplified by the choices made during aging. Vintages are a bit easier to compare with Calvados, of course, because there is no aging in the bottle: once the Calvados has been imprisoned in the bottle, the signature of that vintage has been captured for once and for all.

There are really too many variables for it to be possible to compare terroirs. I’m not aware of individual producers making different bottlings from different orchards; comparing different producers would be complicated by different blending choices; and with vintage the main point is to emphasize the success of the year. But I am quite convinced that vintage Calvados offers something of the same interest as comparing vintages with wine, and certainly allows for choices in matching style to palate.

A Visit with the Rocca Family in Barbaresco

The Roccas have owned land in Barbaresco since 1834, but today’s winery is a story of the last three generations. The winery is a modest-looking group of buildings off the road about a kilometer from Barbaresco, in the Rabajà Cru. Built around a courtyard and larger than is apparent, there’s a splendid terrace behind the buildings with a view right across the vineyards. Standing on the terrace, you feel the microclimate of Rabajà in the wind that is channeled across the vineyard by two hills. Underneath the buildings, the modern cellar is in three storeys, built into the hillside in 2008 to allow wine to be moved by gravity. “The library is now where my father used to park the tractor,” says Luisa Rocca.

Rocca1The family dog was defending the Rocca winery when I arrived

The land here was bought in the fifties by Francesco Rocca. “The grapes were already known to be good, but 1 km at that time was a long way from the center. “Grandfather used to sell the grapes in Alba every year, and the first and easiest grapes to sell were always those from Rabajà,” says Luisa. The winery started in 1978 when Francesco’s son Bruno started estate bottling. His children, Francesco and Luisa are now involved, Francesco with winemaking and Luisa with marketing.

This is very much a family affair—”there is no consultant, the wines are made by Bruno and Francesco,” says Luisa. The wines include, Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, Chardonnay, Nebbiolo d’Alba, and several Barbarescos. The general Barbaresco blend comes from young vines (although not the youngest, from three vineyards in the Neive area). Coparosa comes from two vineyards (one in Neive and one in Treiso), but 2013 is the last vintage because the lease on one of the vintages expired. Maria Adelaide is a selection from several vineyards. Rabajà is the leading single vineyard wine. The Currà Riserva will be added with the 2012 vintage. “This is important because it’s different from Rabajà, which is powerful and rich, but Currà is elegant and feminine. It’s the first Riserva we will make and it’s Francesco’s project so it symbolizes the passing of the generations,” says Luisa.

Winemaking is very particular here, focused on a natural approach to highlight elegance. Fermentation uses yeast which were isolated from the Rabajà vineyard in a four year project. The grapes are broken very gently by using vibration in an interesting looking machine that also selects the berries. “I don’t want to crush the bunches, I would rather do more pump-over than crush, says Francesco. Carbon dioxide is used during sorting and crushing to minimize the need for SO2. “We use very gentle fermentation (in a mix of conventional vats and some rotary fermenters),  I’m looking for elegance and balance not power.” Barbera is matured entirely in barriques, the Barbarescos also in barriques, Rabajà spends one year in barrique and one year in cask, and the Currà Riserva spends three years in large casks,” because the barriques made it too fat, we were looking for elegance.” The minimum age for the oak is 14 years—”We prefer wood that doesn’t add anything to the wine. You need old wood with not too much toast.”

The Roccas do not consider themselves modern. “I consider modernists are people who make wine in the laboratory,” says Luisa, “traditionalists are people who make wine in the vineyard.” Yet the wines are very approachable. Bruno is not patient, say Francesco and Luisa, he has always made wines more on the approachable side. “We don’t believe that lots of tannins necessarily mean the wine will age well. When you use more extraction you have a wine that is more powerful and richer, but not elegant.” Bruno describes his approach as, “Our philosophy has become much more focused on the terroir. In the past we couldn’t do this because of the limitations of the winery. Now that the next generation are interested, we can make more investments, and we plan to move to 100% single vineyards.” The style here is very fine, from the lightest Barbaresco to the weighty Rabajà, there’s a sense of extremely finely textured tannins, silky, but always ending in an impression of finesse.